The government is preparing to release an app which alerts people if they come too close to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, Sky News can reveal.
The contact tracking app, which will operate on an opt-in basis, will be released either just before or just after the lockdown is lifted, according to several people with close knowledge of the project.
NHS bosses hope the app will attract more than 50% of the population, as large numbers of people using it together will be necessary for it to work effectively.
The existence of the app, which was first revealed by Health Service Journal, has been known some time, but key technical details have only recently been agreed by NHSX, the NHS England innovation unit leading the project.
The app will detect other phones in close vicinity using short-range Bluetooth signals, then store a record of those contacts on the device, the sources say.
If someone tests positive for COVID-19, they will be able to upload those contacts, who can then be alerted – after a suitable delay, to avoid accidentally identifying an individual – via the app.
This method means data is not sent regularly to a central authority, potentially easing concerns around privacy, which NHSX fears may slow adoption of the app.
NHSX plans to appoint an Ethics Board to oversee the project, with board members to be identified over the coming weeks.
However, privacy campaigners and data protection advocates questioned whether any board of this kind would be independent, and raised concerns about the app’s safeguards.
Last week, a group of “responsible technologists” published an open letter to the CEO of NHSX and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care warning that “location and contact tracking technology could be used as a means of social control”.
Sky News understands this letter was published in response to the early phase of the development of the app, which was originally intended to be used during the “containment” phase of the government’s response to the pandemic.
One source who witnessed work on the app during this period described it as a “hot mess” run by “a hodge-podge of suppliers and contractors” with “no clear voices in the room speaking to the privacy implications of the technology they were using.”
Another said: “The initial brief was to take what was going on around the world and say, ‘What is the British version of that?’ But it didn’t really feel like that was happening.”